Doing business in France

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If you want to be successful in France, learn some basic French phrases - and how to relax.

In a country known for its love of good wine and good food, it's not surprising that the French take business dealings seriously while not letting them get in the way of life outside of the office.


As English is increasingly becoming the global business language, many French executives speak English. However, France is by no means bending over backwards to speak English, nor does it feel that it is obliged to.

Whilst the vast majority of US imports on Dutch TV are shown in English with Dutch subtitles, in France they are all dubbed into French.

Not only that, France even has even made it illegal to use an English word where a French one exists, in an attempt to prevent anglicisms penetrating the language. Although more symbolic than enforceable, the law still sends a clear message to the outside world - 'we like our language, and if you don't that's your problem'.

Executives from western European countries are more than happy to speak French to ensure trade with the country. In fact, many companies in Belgium, Luxembourg and some parts of the Netherlands have been using French as a language of commerce for years.

Given all this, a foreign company make a good impression by writing to the French company in French. Always use Monsieur or Madame instead of Mr or Ms, and if you have no employee fluent in French, then have the correspondence professionally translated, even if you know the addressee speaks English.

This is very likely to impress a French company. If things go well and you are invited to meet the company, either bring along a French-speaking expat or hire an interpreter for the day.

Even if company executives can speak English, it will be a sign of respect that you both recognise and value the French language and have made efforts to show that you respect its value to the French people.

Not only this, a French speaker on your side will mean the French executives cannot discuss difficult issues amongst themselves and leave you unsure of what was said.

If you do not have a native or fluent French speaker with you, then at least greet the executives in French and apologise, saying you don't speak the language. Most companies will not be surprised by, but will still be grateful for the courtesy.


For all its love of good food, fine wine, and discussions about anything and everything, French business culture remains highly formal and certain rules cannot be broken.

A business meeting should begin and end with a handshake accompanied by an appropriate greeting. At the beginning, you should give your first and last names, followed by either "Enchanté" or "Je suis ravi de vous rencontrer." Both mean "pleased to meet you."

Despite the many other seemingly "Latin" aspects of their business culture, the French surprisingly do not value a heavy handshake. In France, as in Britain, a light grip is sufficient.

Certain personal habits appear vulgar in public, so make sure to be discreet when sneezing or blowing the nose and grooming. If you feel uncomfortable with your appearance, excuse yourself and go to the toilet to freshen up.

American executives should also be aware that the "OK" sign made by rounding the index finger to touch the tip of the thumb is the equivalent of the figure 'nought' or "zero" in France. This gesture would not be an appropriate response to the question, "So, how did you like our company's results for this quarter?"

To convey things are 'OK' either say "très bien" or use the "thumbs up" sign.

The business lunch

In France, information is acquired via people, contacts and networking. However, this does not have to take place in the form of a flirty PR evening where you exchange business cards - the secret is often just going for a good lunch.

French business workers frown on snacks, sandwiches and fast food as cheap and improper because they consider lunch the best time to forge business relationships.

Whilst this also takes place in other EU countries, few of them compare with the French lunch experience, which is far more leisurely, with emphasis placed on taking time to enjoy the meal and the company.

Although drinking at meal times is widely viewed as unprofessional, in France, however, wine is expected to accompany almost of all of the five or six courses, which make up a French lunch (déjeuner). Smoking is practically just as accepted.

Business conversation generally begins after dessert is served. It is normal for the host to introduce the subject of business.

Leaving a tip is up to your discretion. Since a 10 to 15 percent service charge is usually already included in the bill, leave a small tip if you feel the service was above average.


The French pay a great deal of attention to their appearance, which may be why they are often thought of as "chic". Looking well dressed is important casually, and even more so in the office.

Businessmen should wear a shirt, tie and suit, although outside Paris, just a suit jacket and jeans are acceptable.

Businesswomen should dress conservatively, but still make sure they add elements of individuality, such as a neck scarf.

Business hours

While things are not as relaxed as in Spain, the French do not like to be rushed and certainly won't let work interfere with any part of their private life.

Given this, the working days around the French holidays -the month of August for private companies, mid-July to early September for civil servants - are generally a bad time to arrange business meetings.

French office hours in France are generally 9am to 6pm although lunch is always taken for at least an hour and often two.

However, remember that in France all deadlines, unless specifically stated, are negotiable.

Arriving late for an appointment can be a sign of disrespect in some countries, but in France, it is acceptable for someone or something to arrive as late as "tomorrow". Also, even if a time is specifically stated, it can always be negotiated a little later on.

Banks are open from 9am to 4.30pm and shops are generally open from 10am to 7pm. US and UK expatriates should note that French shops tend to close for an hour or so at lunchtime.

Employer/employee relations

In France, the boss is widely viewed to have the upper hand in employer/employee relations.

However, for all this old-fashioned element of business culture, French workers are generally good at joining together, striking or calling on their unions to campaign for them.

The legal procedure for firing an employee in France is rather complex and involves an obligatory negotiation involving the employee and a third party. Often, a negotiated settlement, called a "transaction", is arranged.

All French employers are legally obliged to appoint personnel representatives and to negotiate with unions.

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